Alexander and Bettina Herzog are being hounded by Ganna, Alexander's first wife. At a loss, they seek the help of Joseph Kerkhoven, a psychiatrist. Since Alexander Herzog is a novelist, Kerkhoven asks him to write an account of his first marriage. "It was the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds," Herzog says, recalling his youth, when he enjoyed long walks in the countryside with fellow-bohemians.
Desperate to dedicate his life to literature, Herzog decides to strike a Faustian pact: he will marry into a respectable family, securing an annuity and the freedom to write. Enter Ganna Mevis, daughter of Professor Gottfried Mevis. A wild child, Ganna's intelligence impresses Herzog and, despite his reservations, not least of which is the fact he doesn't love her, he marries her.
The opening pages of this novel by the German writer Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) are like something out of Chekhov – it's all there, the ennui, the preening etiquette, the intellectual posturing. As the marriage progresses, the tone becomes increasingly neurotic. Seeking shelter from his loveless compromise, Herzog begins a string of affairs, dithering for years until he works up the nerve to ask for a divorce so that he can begin a new life with Bettina, prompting Ganna's madness to burst out of its bourgeois straitjacket.
There follows an endless stream of letters, threats and court hearings. Towards the end, we find Herzog a broken man, writing novel after novel only to line his lawyer's pockets. .
If the book is so painfully heartfelt it is because – as translator Michael Hofmann, who "carved" these 250 pages out of Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence, Wassermann's last novel, explains in his brilliant afterword – the facts correspond to Wassermann's life almost too neatly. Bettina is Marta Karlweis, his second wife, while Ganna is Julie Speyer, to whom Wassermann was married between 1901 and 1915. My First Wife is a devastating indictment of the choices we make out of convenience against our hearts and instincts, and the tragedies that ensue.